Field of Science

Crossing the Busycon

I must admit that when I think about the biodiversity hotspots of the world, the eastern seabord of the United States would not be among the first regions to come to mind. But for this post, I'm looking at a dramatic and eye-catching radiation of molluscs for which this is their centre of distribution. I speak of the giant whelks of the Busyconidae.

Left-handed whelk or lightning whelk Sinistrofulgur sinistrum, copyright Andrea Westmoreland.

Busyconid whelks first appeared in the waters of eastern North America during the early Oligocene, about 32 million years ago, in what was then the Mississippi Sea and is now the Mississippi River Basin. As the oceans receded from the Mississippi, they spread into the Gulf of Mexico and are now found between Massachusetts in the north and the Yucatan Peninsula in the south. Except for an introduced population of the channeled whelk Busycotypus canaliculatus that has become established in San Francisco Bay in California since the 1930s, the family has never been found elsewhere. These are remarkably large snails: smaller examples are still more than five centimetres in length, and the largest of all get close to a foot (Petuch et al. 2015). Mature shells have a large body whorl, generally higher than the visible spire, with a long siphonal canal. SCulpture of the shell, if present, is dominated by spiral elements, and the shoulder of the whorls may be marked by prominent carinae and/or spines. As is standard for neogastropods, the classification of this group has shifted around a bit over the years, whether treated as their own family or as a subfamily Busyconinae of the related families Buccinidae or Melongenidae. In a recent review of the busyconids, Petuch et al. (2015) recognised fifteen living species in six genera. The number of fossil species that has been described is significantly larger (over one hundred); not surprisingly, these large solid shells have an excellent fossil record. However, it is worth noting that some of the living species may be remarkably variable in shell morphology and I don't know whether fossil representatives have been subject to the same systematic scrutiny.

Knobbed whelk Busycon carica, copyright Matt Tillett.

All busyconids are predators on bivalves, particularly on burrowing clams. In general, the whelk envelops its victim in its muscular foot and then uses the edge of the shell lip to open the clam's shell, allowing the whelk to insert its radula and rasp out the clam's flesh. The preferred method of opening the shell depends on the species of whelk and may be classed as 'wedging' and 'chipping'. 'Wedging' is the most straightforward method and believed to be the more primitive; wedgers insert the shell lip into the gap between valves and directly force them apart and/or prevent the clam shell from closing. 'Chipping' is more involved and performed by members of the genera Busycon and Sinistrofulgur. In this method, the edge of the whelk shell is rhythmically pounded against the commissure between the clam shell valves, progressively wearing at the valve margins until enough of an opening has been made to insert the radula. The process may take multiple hours of patient hammering. Chipping requires more power and a heavier shell than wedging (chipping whelks may damage their own shell as well as the prey's) but also allows the whelk to attack thicker-shelled clams.

Though each species of busyconid will generally use one or the other method of opening prey, there are borderline examples. Larger individuals of Busycotypus canaliculatus, usually a wedger, may adopt a process like chipping though their attacks on the prey shell are usually less systematic than true chippers. And while I haven't found anywhere that says as much, I suspect that young chippers may spend the earlier parts of their life as wedgers untill they have developed the shell strength for chipping. Dietl (2004) suggested that chipping behaviour may have originated twice among busyconids, based on the fossil evidence of its traces left on clam shells. The modern chippers appear to derive from a single origin in the later Pliocene. However, evidence of an earlier and now seemingly extinct chipping lineage was also found in shells from the late Miocene. These earlier chippers seemingly did not belong to any of the modern chipping genera which are not known from the Miocene deposits in which chipped clams were found. Instead, Dietl proposed that the culprit was a large Busycotypus.

Channeled whelk Busycotypus canaliculatus laying a string of egg cases, copyright Eric Heupel.

Busyconid whelks have long been of significance to people living in areas where they are found. Not only are the shells eye-catching and ornamental objects in themselves, the animals are also harvested for food (though their meat is often sold under misleading names such as 'conch' or 'clam strips'). Archaeological examples have been found of busycon shells being used for tools; Petuch et al. (2015) illustrate an example of a left-handed whelk Sinistrofulgur sinistrum shell with holes drilled into it that would have allowed it to be attached to a stick and used as a shovel. These animals are truly an icon of North America's eastern seaboard.


Dietl, G. P. 2004. Origins and circumstances of adaptive divergence in whelk feeding behavior. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 208: 279–291.

Petuch, E. J., R. F. Myers & D. P. Berschauer. 2015. The Living and Fossil Busycon Whelks: Iconic Mollusks of Eastern North America. San Diego Shell Club, Inc.

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